Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Porcupines But Were Afraid To Ask*

*The title of today’s post is of course a rip-off of David Reuben’s (rather dated) Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask. I actually have a strange connection to David Reuben, which you can read about in the nested tangent of this post.

So I was thinking over the weekend about this whole project, and that in turn got me thinking about all the things I’ve always intended to blog about, but haven’t gotten around to yet. As it turns out, the past week has given me close-ups on two of them, so I’m going to see if I can catch up a bit.

porcupine2 Way back when, on the ride I blogged about in my very first post, I saw a Porcupine (pic right, not mine.) For a year and a half I’ve been meaning to blog about them, and I’ve come across them maybe ½ a dozen times since- always while mtn biking, always at dawn or dusk- but I’ve never gotten a good shot. Last week’s was no exception- my shots stink- but I’m tired of waiting. Porcupines are just so phenomenally weird and cool and fascinating that I can’t hold off blogging about them any longer.

The Ride

IMG_1897 Last week Vicente and I did a pre-work ride on Flying Dog loop up above Jeremy Ranch. It’s getting light later now, and when we started pedaling at 6:30AM, it was just barely light enough to see. Within the next 2 weeks I’ll probably start using lights on morning rides.

Tangent: I tend to procrastinate breaking out the lights for morning rides for as long as possible. IMG_1899I always feel silly “night-riding” for just 20 or 30 minutes until dawn and then dragging the lights around for another 90 minutes in broad daylight. Strangely, I don’t feel silly taking them out on dusk rides and dragging them around for 90 minutes before “night-riding” for 30-60 minutes. Why is that?

The climb was cool and beautiful and perfect, and like on nearly all my dawn rides, we had the trail to ourselves. Vicente, who’d never ridden Flying Dog before3, loved it.

Tangent: In fact, Vicente never rode anything on the back side of the Wasatch- Pinebrook, Park City, Mid-Mountain, Glenwild- nothing- until he started riding with me this summer, despite having lived and ridden in Salt Lake for over a decade. I have a couple of friends like this; they ride Shoreline and its little side spurs (Bobsled, Death Climb) like maybe 200 times a year, but almost never drive 15 minutes up Parleys, where the trails are tacky, shaded and cool.

IMG_1898 I’ve been mentioning Vicente (pic left) a lot lately, and part of the reason is that, like me, he’s happy to get up early to ride. So many of my friends have no interest in these dawn rides. I try to tell them how fantastic it is to ride at dawn, but they just can’t break through that mental wall of darkness.

We rode the “short” loop counterclockwise, which skips Glenwild and Cobblestone, and makes for a shorter, easier climb. About a mile from the top it reconnects into the long climb.

Botany-Tangent: Right at this junction, about 2 weeks ago, I found another possible relic hybrid oak clone, which I hope to blog about in the next week or so.

IMG_1902 At the top we paused, then rolled off on the wonderful, long Flying Dog descent, Vicente leading. This is always a great descent, and riding at dawn, with no one else on the trail, you tend to really open it up. Down, down, down, through Aspen forests and open meadows, over stream-crossing catwalks, banked curves and then into a series of tight switchbacks. At the bottom of the switchbacks the trail crosses a tiny stream and then rolls up for a bit. I saw Vicente- about 30 feet ahead- bottom out and shoot up the other side like a rocket, and then heard a sudden yell and the grinding of locked brakes on dirt. I pulled up a second later and saw it- a fat North American Porcupine, Erithizon dorsatum, less than 10 feet ahead, scurrying off the trail and into the brush.

All About Porcupines

porcupine1 Porcupines (pic left, not mine) are one of those animals that stand out in North America because they’re so different. Like Skunks (stink) or Armadillos (armor) or Opossums (pouch), they have a unique schtick shared by no other mammal on the continent- quills. Quills are actually hairs, but they’re special hairs that have evolved into sharp, hollow spines with an outer layer of keratin, a tough, fibrous animal protein that shows up in everything from bird claws to turtle shells. Quills can easily be released or pulled out if the Porcupine on contact, or even shaken off the animal.

Contrary to popular belief, quills are not really barbed. But the outer layer of keratin is laid down as backwards-facing scales, which means that while they come out of the porcupine very easily, if they enter into another animal’s flesh (in the other direction of course) they are difficult to remove.

We jumped off our bikes and I drew out my camera. The Porcupine scrambled under a clump of low-growing brush and raised and spread its tail in a defensive posture.

Porcupines are widespread across the US, and I knew a bit about them growing up in New England, though my only direct experience with Porcupine quills has been in the Western US, in Colorado, way back in Life 1.0.

A Way-Long, Take Forever To Get To The Point, Tangent

Life 1.0 Tangent: On the Friday before Labor Weekend in 1994 I left my office in Boulder, CO and drove West, heading for a weekend exploring the Uncompaghre Plateau. I drove until it was dark and I was getting sleepy, so I pulled off the highway somewhere around Paonia and continued up an unpaved, unmarked side road, looking for a place to crash for the night. It was dark, overcast and starting to rain. The road was steep, narrow and had no pull—outs; soon I was cursing myself for the bad choice. Finally the road came upon a site of “modern-day” ruins: foundations and half-standing walls from some mining-related enterprise, abandoned for decades. Not an ideal campsite, but it was a flat space to park. I pulled in and killed the engine.

Now at this point I should mention that although I have camped solo in the backcountry many, many times (being as I am, an Excellent Camper) I practically never ever get spooked camping alone, with one exception: camping in ruins. Not old Indian or pioneer ruins, but “modern-day” ruins, like within the last 50 or 60 years. I don’t know why this is. Something about ruins, and what they suggest- failure, abandonment, loneliness- makes my thoughts troubled and my sleep uneasy.

“Oh, quit being a pussy,” I thought to myself. “There’s no one or nothing around here to be afraid of. Just get in the back and go to sleep…”

In those days I drove a pickup with a camper shell. On long trips I kept my mtn bike inside the bed/shell to improve gas mileage. Planning to sleep “indoors” I pulled my bike out and placed it up on the overhead rack up top, moving quickly in the light rain. I turned back toward the back of the truck and- “AAAAAGH!!” I screamed and leapt 3 feet back from the most terrifying creature I’d ever seen!

Heart racing, I fumbled for a flashlight and illuminated in the creature. Waist-high, silent, with a face full of frightening whiskers, it stared at me. It took me a good 5 seconds to realize it was a dog, with a face full of porcupine quills.

It was late and there was nothing I could do. I mumbled a few words to the dog, unrolled my bag and went to bed.

In the morning, my bivvy sack was partially pulled off my bag, held down by something below the tailgate. The dog- an apparent stray with no collar- had pulled it down in the down and made a little bed for himself below the tailgate. We regarded each other in the light. His face had roughly 25 quills embedded in it.

I never had a dog. Although in future years I’d become much more knowledgeable about them, at this point I knew next to nothing. How do people remove quills? Do they go to a vet? Where is the nearest vet? Maybe they just yank them out? The dog was obviously mellow and good-natured. Sitting on the tailgate I fished in my toolbag for a pair of pliers, then called the dog to look at me. He sat on the ground facing up at me and I locked the pliers on a single quill embedded in his cheek. I pulled- gently at first, then harder- it didn’t budge. I pulled harder and harder and it remained locked in. Seriously, it did not budge one millimeter. I pulled even harder, and the dog made a low whimpering sound. I stopped. This clearly wasn’t working. I thought for a moment, then hopped out and patted the tailgate. Without a moment’s hesitation, he hopped inside. I closed the gate and hatch, got in the driver’s seat, and started down.

At the highway I drove back to the last commercial establishment I remembered passing, a gas station/general store. As I pulled into the lot another pickup was just starting to back up- a pickup driven by a guy in a cowboy hat, with 2 dogs in the back. A Rural Guy! A Rural Cowboy-Dog-Guy! Surely he’d know what to do! I stopped short, leapt out of the cab and jogged across the dirt lot toward Rural Guy’s pickup, doing a sort of crazed Hey-Wait-Up wave. He stopped and rolled down the window, a middle-aged guy, probably not much older than I am now. I told him I was passing through, that I had a dog in my truck with a face full of quills. He stopped, got out, and walked over to my truck and looked at Cujo*. “You need to go to Vincent’s…” he said, and gave me directions to the local vet’s office. (Doh!- Of course there was a vet nearby… Rural People have animals…) Then before sending me on my way, he pulled out a card and handed it to me, saying, “And if you can’t pay for it, or you can’t pay for all of it, or whatever, you can give Vincent my name...”

The card said- and I swear to god I am not making this up: “Paul Schmucker, Bulls & Cows Pap Smear Tested.”

*Yes, I felt I had to give him a name.

Vincent’s office opened at 9AM. I arrived at 8:58, and several other vehicles pulled up around the same time, each opening to reveal a person carrying or leading a dog, cat, hamster or what-not. Cujo jumped out, and I beckoned him to follow. He stayed put. I tried again. He wasn’t budging. I tried gently pushing from behind. No go. Finally I grabbed the scruff of his neck (remember- no collar) and started pulling. He locked up, and I dragged him- all 4 feet skidding- across the gravel lot, a dozen plus locals staring silently at this disheveled man – panting, begging, coaxing and cursing under his breath- dragging his dog- with a face full of quills- across the lot. It was clearly my least-composed moment.

Cujo Drag cut Eventually I got Cujo inside the office. The receptionist- an older woman who seemed unfazed by my dog-dragging escapade- told me it would cost 25 dollars- a huge relief. Accustomed as I was to the costs of human medicine, I was happy to pay*.

*I’d thought about the cost on the drive over. I’d had it in my mind that I’d pay up to $500- a formidable sum for me at the time- and then beg and plead for a discount if it was more.

Vincent, a friendly well-fed man of about 50, walked over and in one smooth, well-practiced move slipped a leash over Cujo’s neck while injecting him in the back of the neck with a small syringe. “You can come pick him up around 2,” he said, leading him away.

“I’m not coming back,” I replied. Vincent stopped and turned. I explained again that the dog wasn’t mine, that I was just passing through. Vincent said he couldn’t treat the dog if I were “abandoning” him, that I’d have to adopt him. I refused- I’d rescued the dog, spent a couple hours getting him to help, I’d be happy to pay, but that was it. We went back and forth for a few minutes before I remembered my last trick. I pulled out Paul Schmucker’s card.

“I met Paul Schmucker in town. He said he can help out. Do you know him?”

“Yeah,” interjected the receptionist, “we know Paul. It’s 25 dollars,” she repeated, apparently concerned I might bolt for the door. I paid up and drove quickly out of town, fearful the sheriff might pull me over and make adopt- or worse yet, pap-smear- some large animal.

Meanwhile Back In 2009

15 years later and 400 miles to the Northwest, Vicente and I bent down, trying to get a closer look. Vicente crept closer and closer… “Hey!” I said, “not so close!”

Tail shot Vicente looked confused? “Why not? Can they shoot the quills?”

“No,” I said, “but if it swipes you with its tail you’ll wind up with a bunch of them in your face.” I was surprised for a moment. Vicente’s a smart guy, with plenty of backcountry experience. How could he know so little about Porcupines? Then I remembered- he’s Spanish, and moved to the US as an adult. Growing up in Catalonia neither he nor anyone in his village would have ever seen one.

Growing up in New England, I knew a fair amount about them. Porcupines have a reputation as pests back there, as well as across much of the country. In the woods of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, they often chew the plywood siding on the lower reaches of summer cabins, causing immense damage. A friend of a friend supposedly shot over a dozen in the course of one summer, snatching up his 22 repeatedly as he was roused by crunching and chewing in the middle of the night.

The appealing ingredient in plywood is the salt, or actually sodium nitrate, which is one of the compounds in the glue used to merge the individual sheets together into a single sheet of plywood. They’re also attracted to road-salt and supposedly have damaged automobile tires in winter by chewing on the sidewalls.

Porcupine quills seem like a brilliant defense- lighter than armor or a shell, easily re-grown, very dangerous. But if you stop and think about it, they raise some obvious problems: namely how do Porcupines give birth, and how do they mate?

Neck shot The giving birth answer is surprisingly easy. Although newborn Porcupines are born with a full coat of quills, the quills are soft inside the uterus. Only after a few hours exposure to the outside air do they stiffen up. The underside of a Porcupine is hair/quill-less, allowing the newborn (Porcupines are usually born singly) access to the mother’s nipple.

Side Note: This makes Porcupines fairly easy to hunt with a spear. Native Americans hunted them regularly, ate the meat, and used the quills in baskets and clothing.

The Really Weird Thing

OK, this next part is NC-17. If you’re prudish or squeamish, skip to the next orange heading.

But the mating answer is a doozy. In breeding season males become markedly more aggressive towards one another, and in fact it’s a dangerous time for them, with many males becoming injured or killed by the quills of other competing males. As the female enters estrus, the male becomes interested, hanging around her and obsessively sniffing anything she’s urinated on. During this courtship period, both male and female Porcupines [OK sorry I had to edit the next couple of sentences out. It was just too graphic for a family blog.] Finally- and this is the part that will freak you out- the male stands up on his hind legs and urinates copiously all over the female.

Side Note: This “courtship-urination” is different from “regular” urination. The urine stream is propelled an astounding 6 feet or more, and it appears that the propelling mechanism is not normal bladder pressure, but rather an actual ejaculation of urine. (There’s still time to skip to the next orange heading.)

Following the courtship-urination, the female either a) scurries away if uninterested, or b) presents her rear-end to the male, raising her tail and exposing the small, quill-free area surrounding her genitalia. The male mates carefully, not grasping the female with his forepaws in any way.

Side Note: A fascinating aside to this is that female Porcupines cannot be forced to mate against their will. Though many people think of rape as a strictly human occurrence, it’s not. Many, many animals mate regularly without the apparent “consent” of the female, through force, or threat of force, including mammals (chimpanzees, orangutans, dolphins), birds (ducks) and insects (bedbugs.)

Once consent is given, the female is apparently an enthusiastic participant, encouraging multiple matings until the male is exhausted.

The Coolest Thing About Porcupines

OK, so quills, weird mating, Porcupines are definitely way freaky. But I’ve saved the best- as I so often do in these ridiculously long run-on tangent-strewn posts- for last.

As longtime readers know, I am fascinated by where things came from, and how they wound up to be in Utah. We’ve seen fascinating origin-migration stories behind everything from Cougars to Grizzlies to Moose to Wolves to Creosote to Bunch Cordgrass to more birds than I can remember, but the Porcupine’s story takes the cake.

Pay Attention, This Part Starts Out Geeky But Gets Way Cool

There are some 27 species of Porcupine in the world, divided into 2 families: Old World Porcupines, Hystricidae, and New World Porcupines, Erethizontidae. And what’s so interesting about these 2 families is that they evolved quills- or essentially Porcupine-hood- completely independently. New World Porcupines, including our own North American Porcupine, turn out to be far more closely-related to things like Capybaras than they are to Old World Porcupines.

Side Note: Though the quill architecture of Old and New World Porcupines is basically the same, the placement of quills is very different. The quills of Old World species occur in distinct clumps, while those of New World species are interspersed throughout the coat of fur. Another difference between Old and New World species is that New World Porcupines climb trees, while Old Worlders do not.

This brings up another common question about Porcupines: Do they ever get stuck by their own quills? The answer is yes, and one fairly common scenario in which this occurs is supposedly when they fall out of trees.

Rafting Revisited

Way back last winter I did a post where blogged about New World Monkeys, and how they almost certainly originated as the result of a “rafting” event between Africa and South America some 35 million years ago. Sometime around the same period, between 31 and 37 million years ago, another rafting event occurred, this one bearing some number of- or perhaps a single pregnant female- ancient rodents. This group (or single) of rodents washed ashore in South America, survived, bred and thrived, speciating over the following millions of years into Capybaras, Chinchillas, Pacas and… New World Porcupines. The descendants of these ancient rafting rodents are today known as Caviomorpha, the Caviomorph rodents.

Rodents Rafting Porcupines thrived in South America; today there are roughly a dozen species across the continent. But later, much later, only about 3 million years ago, North and South America were joined in the Great American Interchange. (Blogged about here- coolest thing ever.) Though Northern emigrants to South America (cats, dogs, bears, llamas) far outnumbered Southern emigrants to North America, some Southerners did make the Northward trek and their descendants are still with us today. These include Armadillos, Opossums and a single Caviomorph rodent- the North American Porcupine. Alone of the descendants of the ancient, accidental rodent-mariners washed ashore on a hunk of breakaway mangrove or other flotsam, E. dorsatum’s ancestors waddled across the isthmus of Panama, through Guatemalan jungles and up the long mountain spine of Mexico to eventually colonize North America, give our dogs a tough time, and chew on our plywood.

Side Note: 2 things worth mentioning here. First, at least one other Caviomorph species- a capybara- also colonized North America, but is today extinct. Second, isn’t it interesting that the South American emigrant mammals with us today are some of the most unusual mammals around?

So when you see a Porcupine ambling across the trail, you’re looking at something far more unusual, unique and amazing than just another rodent. You’re looking at the sole surviving species of an epic, 30+ million year-long story of continental drift, epic migrations, evolution and incredible odds. That’s one cool rodent, even without the kinky sex life.


Rachel said...

I loved your post today. I feel like I should have known a lot of this my whole life but was never told.

Thank you!

Ski Bike Junkie said...

"[OK sorry I had to edit the next couple of sentences out. It was just too graphic for a family blog.]"

You're killing me. If they didn't monitor my internet activity at work, I'd google "porcupine sexual behavior" to find out what I'm missing.

KanyonKris said...

Who knew porcupines were so fascinating?

Some mountain bikers followed a porcupine along the Mueller trail recently - with video:


Watcher said...

Rachel- I never knew most of it either. Over the last year I picked up the info in bits and pieces, and it just got weirder and weirder...

SBJ- Google the Cecil Adams/ Straight Dope column on said topic. Lots of additional saucy bits I couldn't bring myself to include...

KKris- That's great footage. I particularly like the half-hearted warning-swipe at around the 1 minute mark. Thanks! I never manage to get good wildlife video like that. That guy should start a nature blog!

Enel said...

Great post. Ironically, I was charging my lights while reading it, and just installed them for the first pre-dawn ride of the fall.

Porcupines and Capybaras, who knew?